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Cardiovascular Disease in Women: What You Should Know About Prevention

  • Though cardiovascular disease is the no. 1 killer of both women and men in the U.S., women often experience it differently.
  • It’s important to know the signs and symptoms for women and be proactive about prevention so you can avoid a medical emergency later.
  • One of the best tools for prevention is a stroke and cardiovascular risk screening.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Andy Manganaro, MD, FACS, FACC

Published on 5/24/2021

As recently as the 1990s, the medical world often treated women and men the same with a “one-size-fits-all” approach to issues like cardiovascular disease. Because the medical community has been historically dominated by males, the female experience was often left out of the discussion. In large part due to activism like the women’s health movement1, the gaps in understanding began to close. It is now understood that while men and women do face similar health issues, the experiences can often be very different.

One specific difference critical to being able to provide the same standard of care to women and men is how women experience heart attacks. While the cliche image of a person having a heart attack might be a man clutching his chest2, women are more likely to experience symptoms like nausea or vomiting, jaw pain and back pain. They may not feel chest pain at all. Without widespread knowledge of how women experience this medical emergency differently, many women may experience a heart attack without realizing it. It’s therefore critically important to understand the differences in signs and symptoms for issues like cardiovascular disease, and learn how women specifically can lower their risk.

A common misconception is that cardiovascular disease affects men more often than women, but the truth is, cardiovascular disease is the no. 1 killer3 of men and women alike in the United States3. One in three women die of cardiovascular disease in the U.S.4

Signs and Symptoms of Cardiovascular Disease in Women

Though it affects just as many women as men, cardiovascular disease signs and symptoms may look different depending on sex, particularly when it comes to heart attacks.

Women experiencing a heart attack are much more likely than men to have symptoms unrelated to chest pain, including:

  • Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Indigestion

The Mayo Clinic reports5 that this divergence may be because in addition to blockage in their main arteries, women having heart attacks tend to have blockages in smaller arteries that deliver blood to the heart as well (called small vessel cardiovascular disease or coronary microvascular disease). Because women often do not have the chest pain most people associate with heart attacks, many women end up at the ER after the heart damage has already occurred, unaware that they’ve had a cardiac emergency. Knowing the signs and symptoms for women is therefore critically important to getting the proper care as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, other types of cardiovascular problems like carotid artery disease, high blood pressure and atrial fibrillation often do not have noticeable symptoms. It’s important to stay informed about your health and get regular checkups so you won’t be caught off guard with a medical emergency later.

A stroke and cardiovascular disease risk screening is an easy, non-invasive procedure that can provide early detection of chronic disease or peace of mind. Learn more about screenings.

How Women Can Prevent Cardiovascular Disease

Even though cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of adults in the U.S., up to 80 percent of cardiac events can be prevented6.

One of the best ways to prevent cardiovascular disease is to understand your risk factors and get familiar with your health. Until you know where you stand right now, you can’t make educated decisions about your health going forward.

First, let’s talk about risk factors7. Certain women may be more at risk for developing cardiovascular diseases due to genetics, lifestyle choices or both. If any of the following qualities apply to you, you have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease:

  • Age 50+
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking (past or present)
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of cardiovascular disease or stroke

If any of these categories describe you, it’s particularly important to talk to your doctor about your risk of cardiovascular disease and make a prevention plan.

In addition to understanding risk factors and seeing your doctor regularly, getting screened for cardiovascular disease will give you an even clearer picture of your health. Life Line Screening offers a variety of quick, non-invasive screenings that provide incredible insight about how your body is functioning. With screenings, you can learn whether there might be plaque buildup in your arteries, whether you might have an irregular heart rhythm or even high cholesterol.

The first step to prevention is always awareness. Knowing your risk and getting familiar with your health is crucial to avoiding a medical emergency.

Once you’re aware of your risk, you can talk to your doctor about prevention efforts in your day-to-day life. This might include:

Stress and anxiety can also be a source of heart problems, particularly for women. If you are experiencing stress or anxiety regularly, talk to your doctor. Your provider may recommend medication or simply a change in lifestyle to lower your stress level. Mental health affects your physical health, so if you are feeling anxious or depressed (or think you might be), consider reaching out to a therapist9 or counselor10.

The Bottom Line

Men and women are equally at risk for cardiovascular disease. It’s the no. 1 killer of adults across the board in the U.S. even though 80 percent of cardiac events are preventable. Women experience cardiovascular disease differently, though, so it’s important to know the signs and symptoms for women and be proactive so you can avoid a medical emergency later. In addition to seeing your doctor regularly and living a healthy lifestyle, getting screened for cardiovascular diseases is a great way to do that. Schedule a screening with Life Line Screening today.